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The gates of ultra selective colleges will open for relatively few applicants this year.

Introduction

Higher education, much like American democracy, is designed to move slowly. Colleges react cautiously to trends and trust that their venerability will carry them from year to year and generation to generation. This approach usually works. It works so well, in fact, that the nation’s oldest colleges are also the most sought-after, with tens of thousands of applicants pursuing vanishingly few spots.

The number of applications, and, consequently, colleges’ rejection rates, had been creeping upwards so gradually that most colleges and applicants have proceeded unperturbed over the years. And then came 2020. Just as the pandemic overturned nearly everything…


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Early Decision and Early Action decisions just came in for the 2020 application season. The numbers are like, in the immortal words of Johnny Utah, woah.

The short version is: conventional wisdom, among college counselors and many other folks associated with college admissions, speculated that application would drop; instead, they’re up. In some cases, way up. That means admission rates are down. In some cases, way down.

At this point, anyone’s commentary amounts to a very hot take. But, some insights into admission rates and trends are emerging. A colleague of mine at Interface Education Services recently attended a webinar…


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The following is an excerpt from Josh Stephens’s new book The Urban Mystique: Notes on California, Los Angeles, and Beyond, published by Solimar books.

The notion of a childhood origin story remains relevant to anyone who lives in cities because, in many ways, everyone who lives in a city is still a child. Whether we live in Beacon Hill or Greenwich Village, Livermore or Santa Clarita, or Richmond or Compton, we are all passive subjects to the decisions made by planners and developers years and generations ago. Too many Americans are resigned to living and working in mediocre places. …


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To hear some people tell it, applying to college is like appearing before a parole board. You’ve served your time for the offenses you have committed. You did something terrible, and the board needs to know you’re a better person. In other words, you have to show “personal growth” in order to get released.

Or, in this case, get admitted.

This year, an unusual number of my students have insisted that their essays need to show “personal growth.” Whether their topics center on medical research, student government, sibling relationships, or modern art, the quest to express “growth” seems ubiquitous.

The…


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Every theater production goes through weeks of rehearsal. Football teams practice formations and plays dozens of times before running them in games. Chefs create tasting menus, militaries run drills, surgeons do internships, and pilots fly simulations.

No one is expected to get it right — whatever “it” may be — on the first try.

All too often, though, high school students write one draft of an essay. They hit “save” then “print” (or “send”), and that’s that. Equally often, teachers receive essays, write comments, assign grades, and hand them back, and that’s that. …


Google X’s self-congratulatory embrace of “failure” ignores lessons that have served writers and artists well for millennia

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I recently listened to a segment on NPR’s Marketplace from 2015 that gave airtime to a positively gushing member of the 21st century financial success story and civilization-defining enterprise that is Google.

Astro Teller (his real name? not sure) directs Google X, a semi-secret public relations stunt that is not quite so secret that its director cannot appear on national radio. It claims to “create radical new technologies to solve some of the world’s hardest problems.” …


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Back in the days when high school social scenes were the stuff of John Hughes movies and Beverly Hills 90210, reputations were all but ironclad. Whoever was a nerd, an artist, a jock, a socialite, or a stoner the first day of ninth grade often remained a nerd, an artist, a jock, a socialite, or a stoner through graduation day. Barring extraordinary circumstances, like spending Saturday detention with group of disparate strangers, social reputations often changed very little over four years.

It’s probably hard, then for 18-year-olds — then or now — to fathom how the reputations of entire institutions…


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Luxury apartments overlook Central Park.

I was walking around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir recently, taking an informal account of the skyscrapers rising above the southern end of Central Park, on an exquisite summer afternoon that later turned to rain. I passed by two girls in school uniforms. I figured they were in ninth grade or so, heading home early after a final exam.

Responding to a question I didn’t hear, one said to the other, “We have a house in the Alps…”

I bit my tongue and kept walking.

Given my profession, I naturally considered the advantages of such a vacation home. She gets to…


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Dr. Lucy Jones got her undergraduate degree at Brown, where she studied Chinese language and literature. She graduated in 1976, so she was ahead of her time in studying Chinese. Her recent boook The Big Ones, though, is not about China.

It’s about natural disasters.

The Big Ones recounts events such as the great California flood of 1862, the 79 C.E. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the 1755 earthquake that nearly destroyed Lisbon.

If these seem like odd topics for a language scholar, they are. But they’re not odd at all for someone who got…


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Say you’re listening to Jay-Z on a nice day in 2004, minding your own business, and driving 55 MPH in the 54 zone. A cop pulls up behind you. You know what happens next.

What do you say to the nice officer?

1) Do you unleash every curse word you know and peel out in a cloud of dust? Do you smack the aviator sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat off his head? Do you fulminate against the fascist police state? Do you tell him about each of your 99 problems?

2) Do you politely acknowledge your transgression and thank him for…

Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.

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